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SPRING IN THE GARDEN: Made in the shade with perennials

By Ellen Presley
The ‘Oakleaf Yellow Picotee’ is a new variety of primrose available this year. PHOTO SUPPLIED

By Ellen Presley

Special to the Record

Creating a lush woodland shade garden is easier than you think.

One of the most traditional old-fashioned flowers of the cottage and shade garden is Primula Veris (primrose), commonly referred to as cowslip.

It blooms April to May and has showy fragrant yellow flowers. It has a lovely low compact habit, thrives in cool moist rich well drained soil and prefers part to full shade - perfect when planted under shrubs or along the edge of the garden.

A new variety this year is vulgaris ‘Oakleaf Yellow Picotee’ with bright yellow flowers with orange-red edges. It prefers cool weather and can be used as a border plant, in containers or as a cut flower.

Another easy to grow favourite is the long blooming dicentra (bleeding hearts). Charming heart-shaped flowers cascade and dangle along finely arched branches. Two interesting new dwarf varieties are ‘Aurora’ (10-12”) with sprays of large creamy white flowers and the proven winner ‘Pink Diamonds’ (16”) which has pink flowers and can be grown as an alpine plant in the sun. Both are deer- and rabbit-resistant and loved by bees and hummingbirds.

New this year is the phlox ‘Blue Moon’ (12” ) which blooms mid spring to early summer. Phlox is usually considered a sun plant but this variety can tolerate both wet and dry shade. The beautiful fragrant flowers are a stunning lavender blue and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The deer leave it alone and the plant will become drought-tolerant once established. Keep cutting back the spent flower heads to encourage more blooms.

When planning the shade garden, it is not just about the flowers. The hardy award winner, Brunnera (Siberian Bugloss) ‘Jack Frost’ has large heart-shaped silver leaves edged and veined in green with tiny baby blue (similar to the forget-me-not) flowers in spring. These early flowers provide the much needed pollination for hungry bees at a time when very little else is blooming. Great in containers or edging the border of your woodland garden, they love full to part shade with consistently moist rich soil and the deer will not eat them. A particularly stunning variety is “Alexandria’ which has beautiful dramatic silver foliage. It gets huge as it matures to 14” by 30” and is a real stand out amongst other mid-green foliage.

My favourite is the Actaea (formerly Cimicifuga) ‘Black Negligee.’ Unlike other varieties that have green leaves, this one has mounding delicate lacy black foliage. Then when it begins to flower, dark stems rise two feet above the mound and form lovely showy bottle-brush-like white plumes tinted with purple that smell like bubble gum. The stand-out combination is sure to be a conversation piece.

A lesser known plant is the tiarella (foam flower), which has unusual dramatic lacy leaves with painted markings and adorable happy frothy plumes that arise above the mounding foliage. Two Terra Nova introductions are the compact variety ‘Sugar and Spice’(8) with profuse frosted pink and white blooms, and the larger leafed ‘Candy Striper’(10), with pink buds which open to white foamy flowers.

You don’t need flowers to add interest to your garden when you have different coloured leaves. For adding splashes of color, one of the easiest perennials to grow is Heuchera (coral bells). It can tolerate a wide range of light conditions, poor soil, cold, and drought. And depending on the variety, the foliage comes in nearly every color imaginable: silver, black, yellow, orange, green, etc., and the subtle flowers attract butterflies, hummingbirds and are long-lasting in cut arrangements.

There are many interesting and colourful plants for the shade garden, all waiting for you to create the perfect oasis. Happy gardening.

Ellen Presley is the owner of Anderton Nursery, at 2012 Anderton Rd., Comox. Visit